23 June 2006

Leave it to the government

Having travelled a bit recently around northern England and Wales it seems to me that we are living in a physical and social environment that is becoming more and more a creation of government and the intellect, rather than nature and our own social instincts. There doesn’t appear to be much investment in the provinces at least, that isn’t initiated or heavily subsidised by government. (In Wales, for instance, government accounts for 66 per cent of economic activity.)

Perhaps it all began when government started subsidising an infrastructure that intrinsically favours the large and global at the expense of the small and local. Fifty years ago this month that US President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which committed his government to invest heavily in a national network of interstate highways. In the rich and the developing countries we see that big business has the ear of government; that it can steer policies in its favour, at the expense of small- and medium- sized enterprises and ordinary taxpayers and consumers, and the environment. Our current politics favours top-down, once-size-fits-all policies, rather than bottom-up, local decision making. It means more and more that ordinary folk look upwards to government, to a specialised caste of policymakers, either as a source of income or for guidelines on how to live our daily lives.

So, in this excellent piece about climate change from the current New York Review of Books, we find:

As with the extinction of species, the disintegration of ice sheets is irreversible for practical purposes. Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years.
I’d just make one small but significant change: it’s not really our choice; it’s that of our governments, who are not only indifferent or unresponsive to climate change but are actively helping it along by subsidising fossil fuel extraction and use.

On a more day-to-day level, the desolation and danger of some of the UK’s provincial towns also owes something to the top-down, inorganic nature of town planning. Zoning and government’s subsidies for road transport have divided shops from dwellings and commercial premises. A centralised and ideologically driven education system, in which the worst schools are not allowed to fail, compounds the problem, and even on the long summer evenings in the very pleasant small English city centre where I’m a visitor, the streets are mostly deserted, apart from a few bewildered tourists looking for somewhere that’s open.

More contentiously, the social fabric of our countries is changing rapidly and inorganically, in the sense that it’s driven by policymakers rather than people:

In Norway, a tiny Scandinavian nation that was until recently 99% white and Lutheran Christian, native Norwegians will soon be a minority in their own capital city, later in the whole country. And still, Norwegian politicians, journalists and University professors insist that there is nothing to worryabout over this. Multiculturalism is nothing new, neither is immigration. In fact, our king a century ago was born in Denmark, so having a capital city dominated by Pakistanis, Kurds, Arabs and Somalis is just business as usual. The most massive transformation of the country in a thousand years, probably in recorded history, is thus treated as if it were the most natural thing in the world. To even hint that there might be something wrong about this has been immediately shouted down as "racism." Source
Now I am not saying this migration should not occur. My point is that it’s happening without ordinary people’s involvement in the decision-making. On such a sensitive issue, more public participation is an end in itself, as well as a means toward wider acceptance of new citizens. I would also argue that much immigration to the west is driven in fact by the rich countries' corrupt trade policies, which do so much to impede imports of goods from the third world. It’s crony capitalism, carried out at the expense of consumers. Norway’s barriers to agricultural imports, for instance, are some of the highest in the world. Western governments have contributed to the collective impoverishment of poor countries, so stimulating reluctant immigration to their own countries.

What can we do about all this? An essential first step, I believe, is to formulate policy in terms of outcomes that are meaningful to real people, which would make it harder for governments to justify dodgy expenditures. After all, if mad schemes like the Common Agricultural Policy had to say from the outset that their prime aim is to transfer resources from the poor to the rich, to denude the environment and to impoverish the third world; if, in other words, they did not rely on deception for their existence, then it’s unlikely they’d ever be implemented.

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